On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) officially introduced a national measure to criminalize abortion procedures after 20 weeks. The legislation, co-sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), is based on the scientifically flawed assertion that fetuses can feel pain at that point. The House of Representatives passed a similar measure in June.
Senate Republicans’ move to wade into abortion politics comes just two days after suffering a loss in a key gubernatorial race in Virginia, a political battle that largely centered on women’s issues. On Wednesday, the conservative National Review Online published an op-ed warning that Virginia’s election proves the GOP needs to do a better job at engaging women.
After winning over women proved to be an issue for Republicans in the 2012 election, the GOP has acknowledged it needs to better market itself to female voters. Some Republican women have even lashed out at their own party over its shortcomings in this area. But there hasn’t been much progress. A poll published last month found that since the last presidential election, women believe the GOP has drifted even further away from the issues they care about.
That hasn’t deterred Graham and his two male colleagues from pursuing their anti-abortion agenda, however. When the South Carolina senator first announced his forthcoming bill, he claimed it’s important to take this fight to the Senate because “the government has a legitimate interest to protect the child at the 20-week period of development, because they can feel pain.” And as he officially introduced the measure at Thursday’s press conference, Graham repeated that talking point, saying that the scientific evidence proving the presence of fetal pain at 20 weeks is “overwhelming.”
In reality, there’s no evidence to back up that claim. Twenty weeks is a totally arbitrary deadline, and major medical associations agree that fetal pain is not possible before the third trimester. The handful of scientists who have explored the field of “fetal pain,” and whose work is now repeatedly cited to justify 20-week abortion bans, recently told the New York Times that they never intended their research to be used to restrict reproductive rights.
Graham’s legislation is largely symbolic, since it doesn’t have much chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate. In fact, right before the GOP lawmaker’s press conference began, his Democratic colleagues convened an event of their own in opposition to the new bill. Sens. Patti Murray (D-WA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) all spoke out against the proposed 20-week ban, noting that it violates the constitutional protection to an abortion guaranteed under Roe v. Wade.
“We’re going to stop this dangerous attack on women in its tracks,” Boxer said on the Senate floor, explaining that the legislation represents an intrusion into the private medical decisions between doctors and their patients. “We will protect women and their families across America.”
National women’s health organization are also speaking out against the measure. “Senator Graham is pushing a dangerous and extreme bill that doctors and medical experts agree has no basis in medicine,” Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, said in a statement. “While no woman should have to justify her personal medical decisions, the reality is that abortion later in pregnancy is very rare and often happens under heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. Politicians have no place in that conversation.”
In response to the renewed debate over later abortions, reproductive rights advocates are attempting to illustrate the types of tragic situations that may lead women to end a pregnancy past 20 weeks — a rare procedure that only accounts for 1.5 percent of all abortions nationwide. Planned Parenthood has released a series of videos that feature real women explaining why they each made the heartbreaking choice to have a later abortion. NARAL Pro-Choice America has released a TV spot along similar lines that will run on national cable.
Although the anti-choice community has capitalized on the emotional outrage surrounding late-term abortion to leverage support for 20-week bans — a policy that’s currently in place in nine states — polling has found that Americans don’t support this type of restriction when they have more context about individual women’s personal situations.